The Magazine

Forensic Failure

Patricia Cornwell doesn't catch Jack the Ripper.

Dec 9, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 13 • By JON L. BREEN
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THE MOST PERSISTENT THEORY was propounded by Stephen Knight in "Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution" (1976) and recycled fictionally in the Sherlock Holmes film "Murder by Decree" (1979) and Anne Perry's novel "The Whitechapel Conspiracy" (2001): an elaborate plot of Dr. William Gull, the royal physician, other Freemasons in the highest ranks of the British government, and even Queen Victoria herself to cover up the prince's secret marriage to a Roman Catholic. Among Knight's accused conspirators is the British impressionist artist Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942), a onetime assistant to James McNeill Whistler. Knight's argument is effectively presented and convincing on its face, but according to Ripper specialist Donald Rumbelow in "Jack the Ripper: The Complete Casebook" (1988), an independent look at Knight's evidence reveals enough selectivity and distortion to discredit his theory.

PATRICIA CORNWELL was introduced to the Jack the Ripper case while doing research in Great Britain for a new novel about her forensic pathologist detective Kay Scarpetta. Cornwell writes that as of May 2001, she "had never read a Ripper book in [her] life, . . . knew nothing about his homicides, . . . did not know his victims were prostitutes or how they died." By December 6, however, she was telling "Primetime Thursday"'s Diane Sawyer that she would stake her reputation on the claim that Walter Sickert was the Whitechapel killer.

Cornwell reportedly spent millions of her own dollars pursuing the investigation, buying and sometimes destroying the suspect's paintings (to the horror of the British art world), and sponsoring DNA analysis of old documents. Many Ripperologists have devoted decades of study to the mystery without claiming to have solved it, but a scant eighteen months after her introduction to the case, Cornwell's brief against Sickert has been published.

At no point does Cornwell offer any real evidence linking Sickert to the Ripper murders. Instead, she devotes her energies to connecting Sickert to the supposed Ripper letters, of which hundreds were received by police and press. Some of the Ripper letters were found to have used artists' materials of the kind Sickert would have employed and to have watermarks similar to stationery used by Sickert. Likewise, some of the doodles with which Sickert decorated his own letters were similar to doodles on the alleged Ripper letters, as were some of the expressions used. (Cornwell believes the "Ha! Ha!" that recurs in Ripper letters is an Americanism Sickert picked up from his mentor Whistler.)

For all its trumpeting in publicity, the DNA evidence is admittedly inconclusive. "The best result," writes Cornwell, "came from a Ripper letter that yielded a single-donor mitochondrial DNA sequence, specific enough to eliminate 99 percent of the population as the person who licked and touched the adhesive backing of that stamp. This same DNA sequence profile turned up as a component of another Ripper letter, and two Walter Sickert letters." This sounds impressive, but diminishes on closer examination. For one thing, it does not take into account contamination by all the persons who might have handled the various letters in the century since they were written, or the possibility that Sickert did not lick his own stamps. Research continues, but book deadlines do not wait on science.

EVEN ONE WHO FINDS these tenuous associations connecting Sickert to the Ripper letters convincing must follow Cornwell in a second leap to the conclusion that the Ripper actually wrote the letters. Most writers on the case, in common with the police of the time, believe the Ripper letters were all, or nearly all, hoaxes. Sickert was a prolific author of articles on art and a compulsive writer of letters to the editor. It is possible (though hardly proven) he could have written some hoax Ripper letters, but that is a long way from the conclusion he committed the murders.

Cornwell reports that she initially agreed with the conventional wisdom that the Ripper letters were fakes. She writes, "However, during my intensive research of Sickert and the way he expressed himself--and the way the Ripper expressed himself in so many of his alleged letters--my opinion changed. I now believe that the majority of the letters were written by the murderer." The implication that she has somewhere presented other evidence Sickert was the Ripper is not borne out anywhere in the book.